Ashes to ashes
Dawn’s Children mercenary Robin was desperately bored standing guard. For a hundred thousandth time, he observed an empty corridor of the scientific complex, brightly illuminated with fluorescent lamps with a dreary look. Then for a few seconds he stared at the strong iron door of the guarded warehouse, on which nothing new had appeared since the last inspection. After that, his gaze stopped at the partner-guard. Yawning, Robin lazily asked:
— Connor, I wanted to ask you something… Do you even know what we are guarding? Usually, one guard is more than enough for this place…
The second mercenary shrugged and boredly replied:
— Who knows? I saw some boxes were brought yesterday, and they were loaded exactly here. The eggheads were running around as if they had a year’s supply of booze inside those boxes. They’re not supposed to be here for long, they have to take them somewhere else tomorrow. Probably some other terrifying cannons, which operation mechanism can only be understood by those who consider a chemical defense suit the latest fashion. Still, no one will ever give any of them into our hands...
Connor was going to spit, but he looked at the clean scraped floor and changed his mind. Instead, he waved his hand and turned away, clearly believing that the conversation was over. However, Robin wasn’t going to lose at least some fun and tried to continue:
— By the way, did you hear that someone leaked the info about the attack on us to the bosses? I was standing at the command post yesterday and overheard the conversation of the Children. You think that’s true?
Connor looked at his chatty partner with irritation.
— Doesn’t matter what I think – the eggheads believed it, apparently. I heard from a friend among the guards that yesterday they ordered to double the patrols. Although I think attacking us here is suicide. The Dawn’s gathered so many mercenaries and so many guns... Anyone will break their teeth on our defense. The minefields alone are enough! Do you remember how the pillboxes in the ruins were equipped?
Robin gave an exaggeratedly sorrowful groan, then laughed:
— Oh, don’t remind me! We spent so much energy clearing the tunnels that led to them, I think I still have some stone dust on my teeth... But, all in all, the Children did well. No matter what you say, they pay great money — I wouldn’t mind working for such payments.
Connor grinned, nodded, and wanted to say something, but the words stuck in his throat as the corridor was suddenly illuminated with an alarming scarlet light and a mechanical voice rumbled from the speakers hidden within the walls:
— ALERT! HAZARD CODE – BLACK! MILITARY PERSONNEL MUST OCCUPY THE PLACES ON THE EASTERN DEFENSE RING! ZERO PRIORITY! ALERT!
Robin looked at his partner with an exasperated look on his face, waved to him and ran to his post, clattering his army boots on the concrete and hearing the same clatter from all sides. His feet were carrying him through the corridors towards the pillbox assigned to him, and his mind was buzzing with thoughts: “Right, zero priority means that all fighters are expected to be at the front line. And the black hazard code is the highest level of threat, declared when they are attacked by clearly superior forces. Some system they got… Why can’t the eggheads have it like normal people?
Robin ran up the steep stairwell in the tunnel, almost tripping over the thick pile of cables on the floor in his haste, and ran up to the control panel of the “Synthesis” turret. His fingers ran expertly over the buttons and toggle switches on the panel, repeating the motions he had learned during his training. There was a growing buzzing sound in the depths of the device, the block of energy cells began to slowly rotate, and there was a smell of ozone in the air. Finally, the camouflage plate covering the turret moved aside, and the mercenary could see what was going on in front of the lab.
His pillbox — like many others the Dawn Children had equipped in recent months — was an internally fortified room in the ruins of what had been one of the laboratory’s satellite buildings before the Catastrophe, connected to it by an underground corridor. From the outside it was no different from the other similar ash-covered ruins around the scientific complex, and any signals from the equipment inside were dampened by shielded armoured walls. According to the idea of the Dawn’s Children’s engineers, the firing sectors of these pillboxes were to control the passages in the minefields surrounding the laboratory. The picture before Robin’s eyes made it clear that things hadn’t gone according to plan.
A multitude of predatory combat vehicles glided across the minefield on hovers, scouring the space around them with their red beams and easily bypassing the seemingly well-camouflaged mines. The hulls of these machines were dotted with clusters of darkly burning oculars. Ravagers! They were actively engaged in a firefight with the armored vehicles of the scientists who came to intercept them — but they had no room for maneuver because they had to keep to the safe passages in the minefield that they were aware of. And they died, dying under the inhumanely precise fire of intelligent machines that were spitting out laser beams and plasma charges.
The Ravagers themselves disdainfully ignored the random gunfire of the lab defenders, taking the occasional hits on the shimmering bubble-like force shields. The only problems they had were with the Children's combat drones, which were unaffected by mines and their maneuverability allowed them to dodge even computer-directed shots of the Ravagers. But the drones’ weapons were too weak to penetrate the force shields, so they were nothing but an annoying nuisance.
For a few seconds, Robin stared at this nightmare in disbelief. It’s not supposed to be happening! No one expected that the enemy would be able to detect mines so easily and turn them against the defenders! And why were the attackers spotted so late? Where are the famous reinforced patrols? Where’s the long-range recon?
As he asked himself these questions, he didn’t immediately notice the piercing whistle that was rising up. But he could no longer ignore a fireball, shining like a blue sun, coming from the side of the laboratory. The whistle was cut short as this projectile fell near one of the Ravagers — and the battlefield disappeared in a blinding flash. The mercenary thought he had gone blind, but a moment later his senses returned, and through the rainbow flashes floating before his eyes he saw that the impact had left a molten crater, surrounded by charred pieces of the robot that had seemed invulnerable just recently. Robin muttered something under his breath:
— Wow, here are the “Pulsars” in action... So powerful...
The downed Ravager didn't make much of a difference on the battlefield, but this shot showed that they could be defeated, and seemed to dispel some kind of a delusion. One by one, the pillboxes came to life, opening fire from powerful stationary weapons — multi-barrelled lasers and rapid-fire plasma emitters.
Robin shook off his numbness, too. He gripped the controls until his knuckles turned white, aimed his turret at the nearest Ravagers and frantically squeezed the triggers. The power unit spun with a howl, turning into a greased spindle, and a chain of red-hot plasma charges streamed towards the enemy. The force shield flickered, scattering them... and burst as a glowing spear of laser beam from another pillbox embedded pierced it. A line of plasma charges pierced one of the Ravager’s engines, and the combat vehicle suddenly swayed sideways. Desperately trying to balance it out, the robot hit the ground and disappeared in a fiery flash — the mines finally caught their prey.
With a grin, Robin turned his fire on the other target. He was joined by the remaining drones in the air, and together they overloaded the force shields and simply tore the iron monster to pieces. There was another ear-piercing whistle, and a moment later another Ravager was almost vaporized by a direct hit from the “Pulsar”. The armoured vehicles of the scientists delayed the swift attack of the combat robots by letting the stationary defenses engage, and the balance of power slowly began to tilt in favor of the defenders. Until three pillboxes disappeared in a barrage of destructive fire at once.
Robin, who saw it, looked up in astonishment to where the monstrous blow had come from, and something broke inside him. In the distance, a huge cloud of ash was swirling and rapidly approaching. Inside it, hundreds of demon eyes blazed with red bright lights and the colossal predatory silhouettes rose up. The silhouettes were much bigger than any armoured vehicle that Robin had ever seen. The mercenary realized the bitter truth — all this time they fought only with the advanced detachment of the Ravagers, and now the main forces approached. And this was his last thought.